If a psychoanalyst, testing his associations, had suddenly said to Mr. Salter the word “farm” the surprising response would have been “Bang!”—for he had once been blown up and buried while sheltering in a farm in Flanders. It was his single intimate association with the soil. It had left him with the obstinate although admittedly irrational belief that agriculture was something alien and highly dangerous
.—Scoop by Evelyn Waugh
The title Procrastination and the Fear of Death does not quite describe the issues I want to discuss here:
- When I am in a period of waiting to find out whether I have cancer or not and how dangerous it might be, does it make more sense to be positive or negative?
- What advice is useful and how do I decide how to use it?
- Is this period of waiting one of special significance where I decide the direction my life will take or is it more prudent to hold fast to firmly held convictions and patterns of behavior until the immediate question of mortality resolves itself?
- Is this the time when I resolve a lifelong pattern of procrastination?
Does it make more sense to be positive or negative?
When I was 28, while showering I found a lump in the pit of my right arm. At the time, I was in therapy.
By way of explanation, I was taught psychotherapy at my mother’s knee. More precisely, I was in her womb when I attended my first therapy session.
My mother Miriam prided herself on being “a pioneer.” One example she used frequently was that she was a breast feeding advocate at the time shortly after World War II when formula feeding was the rage.
Miriam had a distressingly bad childhood. I believe it took considerable courage to embrace psychotherapy at a time when it was not fashionable but she badly needed help.
Why I found therapy beneficial is another story. This story begins with my telling my therapist that a surgeon had removed a tumor and I was awaiting the results of a pathologist. What do you recommend I do?
Dr. Weisberg (I always called him Paul) recommended pessimism.
He suggested I spend the waiting period reading Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ On Death and Dying and familiarize myself with the five primary stages of death:
[To peak ahead, consult Wikipedia’s helpful but incomplete entry.]
Paul’s advice was eccentric, even a little weird. The odds were overwhelming—over 90 percent my oncologist said–that the tumor the surgeon removed was benign. After all, I was physically healthy. I even gave thought to riding my red Taiwanese bicycle three miles to the biopsy.
My well informed, but controlling oncologist Amiel Segal had told me: Relax, there is probably nothing to worry about. He added:
You are not crazy enough to see a therapist when you can talk to me.
Plus: Dump your girlfriend she is too old for you.
I decided to follow Paul’s advice.
By the time I learned I did indeed have something to worry about, I was fluent with the five stages; albeit, still stuck in denial.
In retrospect, it was not surprising I learned I had cancer in the waiting room of the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture.
At the time, I was covering food policy for The New Republic and the scheduled interview with Secretary Earl Butz was a real coup. While waiting, I dialed my telephone answering machine.
Dr. Segal had called several times leaving increasingly urgent messages. I called Dr. Segal (whom I thereafter called by his first name; a policy I pursued with subsequent physicians on the grounds they called me by my first name).
Amiel told me to get to his office immediately. When I told him I had an appointment with the Secretary of Agriculture, he insisted I abandon it.
The Secretary of Agriculture is more important than you, I said.
Tell me over the phone.
I can’t tell you over the phone, he said.
That is how I found out I had cancer.
Then there was my second cancer and my third. Now there is now.
Now I am not consulting anyone about what I should do during this waiting period. I am assuming the worst and would be pleased if I am wrong.
The second question which began this posting may seem to have been answered above in italics. Next, I will have more to say about: What advice is useful and how do I decide how to use it?
In case I have not mentioned it: This waiting period is tough.
Copyright 2014© by Joel Solkoff. All rights reserved.